Book Review

The Viral Storm by Nathan Wolfe

the viral storm

In The Viral Storm award-winning biologist Nathan Wolfe – known as ‘the Indiana Jones of virus hunters’ for his work in jungles and rain forests across the world – shows the threat of a global pandemic is greater than we have ever imagined.

The Viral Storm examines how viruses like HIV, swine flu, and bird flu have almost wiped us out in the past – and may do so in the future. It explores why modern life makes us so vulnerable to global pandemics, and what new technologies can do to prevent them. Wolfe’s provocative vision may leave you feeling distinctly uncomfortable – but it will reveal exactly what it is we are up against.

Reading a book about the risk of pandemics during a pandemic may seem like a slightly strange choice, but I found The Viral Storm: The Dawn of a New Pandemic Age to be an absolutely fascinating read.  I learnt a lot from reading it, and thought that it was thoroughly engaging (not always easy for such a science-orientated work) and, for the most part, easily accessible to those with no expertise or prior knowledge in this area of science.  There are some technical terms used, but these are well-explained by the author, making it easy for the layman to pick up.

Throughout this book, Wolf seeks to answer three key questions:

  1. How do pandemics start?
  2. Why are we now plagued with so many pandemics?
  3. What can we do to prevent pandemics in the future?

As part of this, he looks at recent pandemics (The Viral Storm was first published in 2012), in particular sharing details of bird flu’s patient zero – a six-year-old boy from Thailand.  As I’m sure you can imagine, this is a particularly sad tale, but one that highlights the element of chance in a virus passing from an animal to a human.  Wolfe also looks at the outbreak of swine flu a few years later, and SARS a few years earlier.  I found it interesting that both bird flu and swine flu are still kicking around, and yet neither are talked about at all in the media, despite there still being deaths attributed to both.  It makes me wonder how long we’ll hear about COVID-19 for once we have it in hand, assuming that we get to that point!  Wolfe also discusses HIV, which:

nearly thirty year after its discovery continues to spread, currently infecting over thirty-three million people at the latest count

Wolfe talks in detail about its origins – chimpanzees – and the factors that allowed it to spread so widely.

Wolfe talks about the changes to humans and civilisations over the years, and how these changes have made us more susceptible to pandemics.  It starts with our earliest ancestors leaving the trees for the plains of Africa, and the impact of farming and the domestication of animals, and I found this look at our ancient ancestors fascinating.  More recently, people have moved towards densely populated cities, and we’re becoming increasingly well-connected, it being almost as easy to hop on a plane to another country as it is to visit somewhere closer to home.  It doesn’t take much to see how these latter two points in particular make it easier for a virus to spread quickly and efficiently around the world.

Wolfe takes a partially autobiographical approach to The Viral Storm, and this adds a nice touch of personalisation to the book.  The reader learns how he came to this field of work as a result of his doctoral study, which aimed to look at the self-medicating behaviour of chimpanzees.  This necessitated Wolfe having to understand the infectious diseases they were treating, and that, as they say, was that.  Throughout, he talks about the work he has undertaken since that time, as well as looking at the medical developments that have either helped or hindered the spread of microbes.  He does also touch upon that third question, and his views on how pandemics might be prevented in the future.

The Viral Storm is told in short, engaging chapters and explains Wolfe’s work and that of other “virus hunters”.  It’s a fascinating read, and one that seems particularly pertinent right now.

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